I have now finished The Wake. My enthusiasm is not tempered one iota. It is a masterful blend of real history, folklore, myth and natural history and is written in pseudo-Old English, a shadow-language made up by Paul Kingsnorth, with a smattering of Wessex dialect, Old Norse and Mercian. For me it ticked all the boxes, helped by a “Note on the Language” which explained how Old English works (roughly) and “A Partial Glossary” of about 85 words, though there were hundreds more for which there was only one’s understanding of the explanation in the notes and an educated guess to get you through.
Paul Kingsnorth has used enough modern English to make a sentence comprehensible even without a scholarly knowledge of Old English, though obviously the grammar is quite different. Certainly, his stated aim being that we got an authentic taste of what it sounded liked to be English in 1066, it succeeded in getting the reader right into the whole fabric, the warp and weft so to speak of the times. And I agree entirely with him that modern phrases have no place in historical fiction. “Me-time” for example is not an expression that would ever have passed the lips of Richard III, but at the same time, I would not go so far as to agree that:
I simply don’t get on with historical novels written in contemporary language. The way we speak is specific to our time and place. Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them.
This is all very well, and a purist point of view which is very laudable. But one also has to remember that for example, Henry VII spoke fluent Norman French, Welsh and broken English, Sir Thomas More and Erasmus conversed in Latin…one can take authenticity too far. All that notwithstanding, Paul Kingsnorth has accomplished a quite extraordinary feat in keeping to his rule; writing a novel which is eminently worth reading, and an exceptionally well constructed narrative which holds the reader right to its bitter end, in what amounts to a foreign language.
My enthusiasm may be influenced by the fact that it ticked all my boxes. I covered this period in A level History; one of the first books I remember reading by myself was Norse Gods and Heroes; I love folklore and know the stories of Weyland the Smith and Herne the Hunter; also aided by the magisterial series on television King Alfred and the Anglo Saxons, I have a working knowledge of the geography of England at the time, albeit 100 years earlier – but it gave me a geographical sense of Mercia, Northumberland and the areas where Danelaw was in action; furthermore I have a personal knowledge of the Fens, Lincolnshire and East Anglia and I know the route Harold took from the South to Stamford and back to Senlac Hill having frequently taken American guests that way to show them the background to that piece of our history (and then on to Hadrian’s Wall) and finally I know quite a lot of natural history, and understand the difference between rush and sedge, ash, oak and beech, blackthorn and alder; I know what a heron, a hawk, a badger, and a crow looks like, so that having the visual image in my head when I came across their Old English, I could then remember the words next time I came to them.
Which is not to say that all this is essential, but it helped. Go on, try it for yourself. Whether or not it will be on The Man Booker Shortlist remains to be seen